A Window into the Ups and Downs of a Doctoral Program


A Window into the Ups and Downs of a Doctoral Program

A SUMR Scholar's Commentary From the 2017 NRSA Conference

Clustered front and center in the audience for the opening of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality’s (AHRQ) National Research Service Award (NRSA) Research Trainees Conference in New Orleans, we SUMR scholars were positioned perfectly to receive Francis Chesley’s warm welcoming remarks. Chesley, AHRQ Director of the Office of Extramural Research, Education, and Priority Populations, remarked off-script, “Either the crowd at this conference is getting much younger, or I am aging very rapidly.” I looked around me and took note of the powerful presence of 19 other SUMR scholars near Chesley’s podium.

In speaking with the other young professionals, I was able to picture myself as a doctoral student.

In that moment, I began to understand the privilege we had to be at the NRSA conference. It was geared toward facilitating the professional development of PhD students and post-docs, many of whom were presenting their work. The day-long conference provided me and my SUMR peers an opportunity to understand the pathway to academic careers in the field of health services research. In speaking with the other young professionals, I was able to picture myself as a doctoral student. I began to understand some of the successes, challenges, joys, and fears that arise from entering a PhD program—aspects that some graduate students said they never considered until they were at a crossroads themselves. Indeed, we spoke with many young professionals at pivotal points in their careers, similar to ones described by our guest speakers in the SUMR program as being integral to their intellectual, professional, and personal development.

I felt that our attendance at the conference allowed us to make the most out of the subsequent three-day AcademyHealth Annual Research Meeting. The conference was a smooth and logical transition between our current standing as undergraduates interested in health services research and the robust, often complex, work that would later be explained by leaders in the field. The NRSA conference, in conjunction with our earlier SUMR sessions at Penn with Dr. Lisa Simpson, President and CEO of AcademyHealth, superbly positioned us to expand our knowledge and network at the Annual Research Meeting.

Attending the NRSA conference and the AcademyHealth Annual Research Meeting helped me narrow my gap in understanding and make sense of the (largely foreign and mildly intimidating!) processes within graduate school and academia in general. In fact, academia is not solely about completing a dissertation and getting published; it can also involve expanding skill sets, assessing community needs, and striving to be an exemplary mentor and mentee. Combined with the comprehensive orientation to health services research we are getting throughout the summer, these conferences are helping many of us SUMR scholars shape and refine our educational and professional goals.